The thought of having to flee a war zone with your family would have to rate as one of the most terrifying hypotheticals the anxious mind plays out while watching the news or during a bout of insomnia. Yet twelve years ago, Jeremy and Jessica Courtney did the exact opposite and fled to a war zone. Giving up a safe, cushy existence in the USA, the plucky Texan couple ignored the concerns, advice and protests of loved ones and moved to Iraq with their eighteen-month-old daughter, Emma.
If you’re thinking that packing up your young family to board the peace train to the Middle East during the war is a pretty out-there thing for an American couple to do, then you’d be right. Forming a not-for-profit organisation called the Preemptive Love Coalition, Jeremy and Jessica set out to bring peace, understanding and material assistance to a region that was being torn apart by violence. They didn’t know where the journey was going to take them; twelve years later they’re still living in Iraq, and their organisation is working in numerous countries, including Syria, Turkey and Iran.
“When we told our families that we were moving, they were really afraid. They weren’t excited at all! We didn’t have a lot of support. My parents were doing anything and everything to keep us from coming over to Iraq. They were like, ‘We’ll buy you whatever you want if you just stay here. We’ll buy you a house.’ That’s how much they wanted to keep us in America,” explains Jessica. Despite the understandable parental opposition, the headstrong newlyweds moved anyway. “We ended up moving without my parents’ blessing, but we had the blessing of Jeremy’s parents—even though they weren’t super excited about it.”
Over time, the couple’s parents began to understand their choices, but regardless, Jessica and Jeremy insist the path was set with or without the blessing of their friends and family. “We both have this stubborn quality that the more you tell us no, the more it motivates us to do certain things, so I think their tactic backfired in that regard,” says Jeremy. “We knew this was something we wanted to do. We thought it was important for us to do this as individuals; we wanted to be a part of a solution in Iraq, and not just destruction.”
Starting small and working under the ethos of choosing love instead of fear, the Preemptive Love Coalition began by funding and facilitating lifesaving heart surgery for children born with heart defects and unable to access medical care in Iraq. The organisation’s reach and influence is now multifaceted: its programs facilitate emergency relief for communities victimised by ISIS, education for at-risk children, training of local doctors and microloans for small business owners trying to get back up on their feet after enduring years of living in a conflict zone.
Living in a neighbourhood just north of Baghdad, the couple and their two children (now twelve-year-old Emma and nine-year-old Micah) have a different life to most American families, and that’s just the way the family likes it. “Our neighbourhood has that throwback kind of quality that I think most of America lost many years ago. The kids can walk down the street to get milk, bread and eggs. They’ve been doing that since they were eight years old,” says Jeremy. “People are too scared to send their kids out like that in many suburbs in America.”
Explaining that the city has seen suicide bombings, kidnappings, protests, riots and “martial law here and there”, Jeremy insists that those instances are anomalies—the majority of the family’s time in the region has been “pretty normal”. Just like many other mothers around the world, Jessica likes gardening, sewing and quilting. Like Jeremy, Jessica believes that living in Iraq is a positive experience for their children. “They are getting to experience things in the world—for better or worse—that most children don’t have the opportunity to experience. It’s matured them faster than other kids. But it’s also sheltered them from the more commercial parts of the Western world,” she says. “They are really grateful to grow up here. When we travel, they can’t wait to come back home to Iraq. They feel an identity with the people here. It helps them to be worldly citizens, rather than citizens of one specific country. They just don’t have that one-world view.”
Giving peace a chance
Since we are subjected to daily barrages of news stories from around the world showing suffering in all its shocking and terrifying forms, it’s no wonder that many of us experience compassion fatigue. We’re hypnotised into inertia by a veritable spin cycle of war, famine, floods, earthquakes, terrorism, disease, murder, persecution and gross inequality, and at times the tidal wave of despair is all too much for some to bear.
Yet for Jeremy and Jessica, actively working within communities to seek solutions, relieve suffering and find tangible ways to make the world a better place is the very reason they’ve been able to fend off compassion fatigue. Instead of being passive bystanders to the world’s seemingly endless problems, they are a part of the solution.
“When you get to see people push through pain and find their way through to the other side, rebuild their lives after war and violence has destroyed everything they’ve known, that’s an incredibly inspiring thing. It gives us life and helps us avoid compassion fatigue,” says Jeremy. “Compassion fatigue sets in when all we have access to is headline news telling us the negative side of the story. Whether it’s the famine in the Horn of Africa, the war in Yemen or the refugee crisis in Syria, people get fatigued because they don’t get a firsthand glimpse at how wonderfully these people are putting their own lives back together.”
Indeed, for every story of pain, loss and grief, there’s a story of resilience, hope and triumph. There’s Madeeh, a disabled woman who set up a small grocery business in Baghdad after receiving a grant from the Preemptive Love Coalition. There’s Thamer, a baker who used funds to rebuild his bakery in war-torn Mosul. And Zahraa, a widow with five children, who bought a small flock of sheep that now provide her with enough milk to make and sell homemade yoghurt so that she can provide for her family.
Jeremy believes that the feeling of having to solve everything wrong in the world is what leads people to feeling overwhelmed. By starting small, the Preemptive Love Coalition have been able to grow organically and avoid taking on every single problem in the Middle East as their own. “It’s not all on us—we have this beautiful opportunity to partner with others, to come together in friendship and help put their lives back together. It’s never been about us. It’s predominantly about being a friend while they go on their own journey towards making their lives whole again,” Jeremy says.
So when the world’s seemingly insurmountable laundry list of issues appears to be all too much to take on, what can the average person do? The good news is that not everyone has to move to a war zone to be a peacemaker: the Beatles proposed the answer back in 1967 when they first performed ‘All You Need Is Love’.
Choosing to ‘love anyway’ is one of the key tenets of the Preemptive Love Coalition. “You don’t have to have this massive vision and plan to change the world. The only thing you and your family are responsible for is what’s before you today. Whoever happens to cross your path and may be in need, if you can be loving in that moment and take one step at a time, you have no idea how that’s going to affect someone, or the world,” says Jessica.
Keeping their footprint small, the Preemptive Love Coalition focus on growing and building up locals as much as possible, whether that’s by employing locals to deliver programs, educating local medical staff to perform operations themselves, or sourcing food from local providers rather than having it shipped in from afar. It’s this ‘local problems, local solutions’ approach that sets apart the work of the Preemptive Love Coalition from many other organisations working in the Middle East and beyond.
Despite the coalition occasionally facing opposition, distrust and even fatwas (yes, fatwas), Jeremy and Jessica are impressed with the people they’ve met throughout the course of their work. “People aren’t aware of how resilient Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans and other people from this region are. How resourceful they are. How brilliant they are. They don’t need us to come in and solve their problems—in fact, that’s probably the worst thing we could try to do,” explains Jeremy, who is clearly connected to the communities he works with. When asked about his personal heroes, he doesn’t skip a beat: he’s in awe of the women working quietly behind the scenes.
“We partner with many completely unknown Arab women who lead these amazing movements of people who are central to helping us feed 25,000 people a day outside Aleppo and gain access to some of the hardest frontline positions in Iraq. They are the real heroes of the story,” says Jeremy. “Even though we have cultural, religious and political differences, and sometimes we butt heads, they get an amazing job done. These women are everywhere across the world. In every conflict, in every neighbourhood … just quietly doing the work with no one paying attention.”